Category Archives: US Culture

5 lessons for nonprofits from the Seahawks’ bizarre Super Bowl loss

seahawksHi everyone. I am trying to calm down enough so that I can write this week’s blog post. But I can’t. This post is going to be crappy. Because the whole City of Seattle, probably the whole world, is wondering “WTF, Seahawks?!!!!” This is painful. They were half a yard from touchdown, and from winning the game, and they decided to THROW the ball?! The Patriots intercepted, sealing the most ridiculous ending to a football game ever.

Everyone in Seattle is going through the stages of grief right now. Of course, this is Seattle, so the stages are: Denial, Righteous Anger, Hot Yoga, Organic Juice Cleanse, Bargaining at a Farmer’s Market, Composting, Existential Despair, Biking to Happy Hour, and Acceptance…of Marijuana.

Seahawks, did you forget that you have the most effective running back—Marshawn Lynch—in the history of football?! Was he invisible?! Why didn’t you just give the fricken ball to Marshawn so he can barrel through the Pats and win us our second Super Bowl so that I could polish off my third Corona and write “What nonprofits could learn from the Seahawks, Super Bowl Champions, part 2”?!!! (Read part 1 here) Continue reading

What the NFL would look like if it were an actual nonprofit

foam fingerAll right everyone, I hope you are all sitting down for this, because I am filled with mild outrage at the National Football League. But first, go Seahawks! Dudes, sweet touchdown at the last minute to beat the Panthers! We all needed that. We’ve been worried about you guys. Welcome back!

But back to the outrage. Apparently, the NFL has for decades been considered a trade association, kind of like a chamber of commerce, and is granted 501c6 status, which makes it a nonprofit. That’s right, the NFL is a nonprofit! Sure, it makes over $10 billion a year and pays its commissioner, Roger Goodell, $44 million in salary last year. But with the 501c6 status, which it gained through some political voodoo in 1966 when it merged with the American Football League, the NFL is tax-exempt.

Now, before you too get upset and punch your cubicle wall with your carpal-tunnel-afflicted hand, here are some facts to consider. First, even though the NFL is considered a nonprofit, its members (the 32 football teams like the Seahawks) are not, so the revenues they make through licensing and swag and stuff are taxed. Second, the NFL often operates at a loss, which you can clearly see on their 990. Heck, in 2012 they were $304 million in the red. You can’t tax a net loss. Removing their tax-exempt status would only recover about $10 million per year in funds, which is still a lot, but not nearly as much as we were all hoping. 

What is mainly annoying me, however, is the fact that the NFL is considered legally a nonprofit. This is ridiculous. That’s like saying that a donkey is a bunny. Or that a hat is a door. Or that a Hershey’s bar is actually chocolate (it is chocolate-flavored sugar). It is insulting to all of us who proudly wear the title “Nonprofit.” Do I go around telling people that I am a dentist? Of course not! Especially not after the last tooth extraction I did on a colleague who didn’t have dental insurance; it did not go as well as Youtube suggested it would. Continue reading

Which comes first, the Equity Egg or the Accountability Chicken?

chicken and eggThe last few weeks have been rough. Not only did the baby grow his first tooth and got an ear infection and has been miserable, but also my lucky bamboo, which I got to boost the feng shui in the office, mysteriously turned yellow and died.

None of that, however, compared to getting news that one of the schools we partner with didn’t get the grant that it applied to. I helped them to write this massive, 30-page narrative, sitting at the principal’s desk and typing away as she ran in and out of her office to deal with one situation after another. The grant was painful. It was like taking a pint of kumquats, freezing them overnight, putting them into a gym sock, running the gym sock though some poison oak, and then beating yourself in the face with it while watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace, that’s how painful it was. (I helped another school last year to write the same grant, and wrote about how awful that was).

We wrote this grant for several days. This is a school with 95% kids of color, 85% low-income, and this was their third time writing this grant and failing to get awarded. It was a devastating blow for a really great school. “I’ll buy you a drink,” I told the principal; we both felt like crap.

A few days later, I ran into one of the executive board members, “Frank,” who approved the decisions. I told him the grant award system was messed up and he needed to change it. “Well,” he said, “there are always winners and losers. And we need to focus on schools who have principals who are accountable and taking lead to improve their schools.”

As much as I love the US, we have some major things to improve on. One of those things is this zero-sum game that we play, and it often manifests in the form of “accountability,” a catch-all concept that everyone now uses because it makes them look smart and responsible. Accountability now equates with excellence and quality and bald eagles and apple pie.

Unfortunately, this concept has been thoroughly misused, wielded as a tool to perpetuate many crappy and unjust systems.

At a panel I was on, the topic was parental engagement. “We can talk all we want about all sorts of things,” said one of the other speakers, “but at the end, it comes down to parental accountability. Parents need to be responsible for their kids’ learning! They need to read to their kids and make sure they do their homework!”

Yeah, said the room, clapping, that’s the American Way!

“I agree,” I said, “parents should be involved in their kids’ education.” But, I pointed out, many of them don’t have the language skills, or they are poor and work several jobs. And then because they are poor, they tend to go to struggling schools, and those schools don’t have translation services, or any staff who can spend time with the parents, so even if a parent really wants to be engaged, they come to school and there is no one to help them. So if we want parents to be accountable, provide them the resources they need first.

We have a very punitive sort of mindset, and oftentimes it makes no sense. Let’s punish the schools that don’t do well by taking away or not giving them the resources they need. THAT will incentivize them to get better, those lazy, good-for-nothing schools who have no accountability.

Also, let’s force low-income schools to write painful 30-page grants to compete for these funds that are designed with equity in mind to help struggling schools with high numbers of low-income students. Grants that are so painful it’s like taking a mason jar, filling it with apple cider vinegar, running through a blackberry thicket, then pouring the vinegar all over yourself. The best-written grants should be awarded, because that’s accountability. Let’s ignore the fact that the schools that are most struggling, and thus most in need of these funds, are probably the ones that have the most challenges writing these grants.

People, even well-intentioned people like “Frank”, use “accountability” as a crutch to not have to deal with the much harder task of achieving equity. Why spend five times more effort to define and find the most struggling schools, work with them to develop a strong plan to support their students to achieve, and provide them with funding and guidance to succeed? Why do all that when you can make all the schools write a sadistically burdensome grant, grade them on a 100-point scale, and pick a school that scored 87 points over a school that scored 85 points? Your process is clear and “accountable,” you’re forcing the schools to be “accountable,” and no one can yell at you for being unfair.

People who believe that competition and the focus on accountability will lead to equity are deluding themselves. They believe everything should be like the Olympics, where those who perform the best should get the gold. Most of us, though, enter into the field of nonprofit or philanthropy because we know the games are screwed up, and our job is to do whatever we can to bring balance by making conditions equal. How can you give someone a gold medal for Alpine skiing, for instance, when they have two skis and the other skiers have only one ski, or a broken ski, or there is not enough snow on their track? Let’s focus on making sure everyone competes under the same conditions before we reward the best performers.

Even if conditions are equal, though, sadly the competition will still not be fair. That’s because everything is relationship based. Those who have the best relationships will always get ahead, and poor families, and communities of color, and struggling schools and scrappy nonprofits will seldom have the same level of relationships with influential people.

That’s why our work is important. We above most people understand that equity comes first. Sometimes, though, we also forget, and we also fall into the accountability trap.

If we want equity, we must start with equity. And there are instances where it is working. Finland, for example, has become one of the best school systems in the world, if not the best. They focus on ensuring there is equity first. In fact, they don’t even have a word for “accountability.” There are few standardized tests, for example, and they don’t make their principals spend 80 hours writing a grant to get the resources they need, a grant so awful it’s like taking a handmade quilt, gathering crazy ants onto it, then wrapping the quilt around yourself while listening to Passenger. They focus first on making sure every student has the same opportunity. And yet they are excelling. In comparison, Norway, with a similar homogenous population, has bought into this system of competition, punishment, and accountability, and they are not doing nearly as well. This is only one example, but it is a strong one.

Now that I’ve become a parent, I think a lot about how families are structured and what kind I would like mine to be. Imagine a family that is ultra competitive, where children are in constant competition with one another and rewarded by their parents. “John got 5 A’s this quarter, so we’re going to take him to Disneyland, yay! Have some more food, son, you deserve it. The rest of you, you got B’s, you need to shape up. Jimmy, I don’t care that you got mugged twice last month while walking home. Toughen up and stop whining. Be a man like John here.” (Sadly, I actually know some parents who are like that).

Most of us can see how awful it would be to live in such a family. But this is what our society is increasingly becoming like.

Many of us continue to do this work because we believe there shouldn’t be have to be winners and losers all the time, especially when we are talking about kids. All of them deserve a chance to succeed, and it pisses me off when idiots wield “accountability” as a reason to justify their thoughtless decisions. If we want EVERYONE to succeed, and not just a select few, then we must ensure everyone has the same opportunities. When it comes to accountability and quality and equity, it is not a chicken-and-egg argument. It is equity that will lead to quality and accountability, not the other way around.

Final observations on Europe before we get back to unicorns and wombats

cuppolaHi everyone, sorry for the lateness of this post. I was traveling back from Berlin. It is good to be back in Seattle, though I am jetlagged and look kind of like someone just punched me in both eyes. Today I realized I have lost 5 pounds, which gives me a great idea: The Vegan Balkans Diet! Basically, just become a vegan, then go to the Balkans.

Since I’m jetlagged and trying not to fall asleep until at least 9pm, I don’t know how coherent this post is going to be. Berlin, Germany was really great, except that people were kind of rude, saying things like “You do not have an account at this bank? Then no, you may not withdrawal money here” and “Stop! You can’t just try to break off a piece of the Berlin Wall at this museum!”

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Serbia, nonprofits, Breaking Bad, and veganism

Hi everyone. I am so exhausted. I don’t think I have thought this intensely for this long a period of time since, I don’t know, maybe the first season of Game of Thrones. I am now in Serbia in the city of Belgrade, some place that I never thought I would be. No one really says, “I want to go to Serbia for vacation” or “We’re going to Serbia for our honeymoon” or “Congratulations, you just won a free trip to Serbia!”

And that’s too bad, because the city is beautiful. Belgrade has been fought over in 115 wars and burned to the ground 44 times in its history by various armies. But, except for the buildings bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War in 1999, everything looks great, with shiny glass buildings standing harmoniously next to ancient architecture. I have been trying to absorb everything. There are some painful memories of the brutal atrocities committed during the tumultuous past, a significant part by the Serb army, but as a whole the country is trying to move forward with its future, a major step being joining the European Union.

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